Jennifer Rudolph Walsh
If I told you that my parents got divorced when I was nine years old, it would communicate a fact—but it wouldn’t help you know me better. What if, instead, I told you this: One morning when I was nine years old, my dad told us we were having a family meeting after school. I was so excited, I could barely breathe. I had never been to a meeting before and it sounded important. Between classes, I asked some friends if they’d ever been to one, and my friend Pamela explained to me that a family meeting is when you decide where you are going on vacation. Wow! I thought. My first vacation! She told me about an amazing ride at Disney World called It’s a Small World and sang me the song about a small world with a shared sun, where a smile meant friendship to everyone. It sounded like heaven.
When I got home from school, I found a yellow legal pad and wrote a detailed list of the reasons Disney World was an educational place. I arrived at our family meeting ready to advocate for my choice with all my might. When, instead of calling the meeting to order and asking where we’d like to go on vacation, my parents calmly sat down and told my siblings and me that they were getting divorced, my mind went blank. All I can remember now is how desperately I hugged the legal pad to my chest, wishing I could make it disappear. I had never been so wrong about something so big. That moment was a tectonic shift not only in my understanding of my family, but in the way I trusted myself and the world. What else did I think was permanent that might change in an instant? How else was my innocence leaving me exposed to pain and confusion? I can still feel the legal pad’s solid edges pressing into my hands—the physical, almost shameful evidence of a world I no longer inhabited and never would again.
I expose my vulnerability by telling you about my Disney World list instead of just saying “When I was nine my parents got divorced” because I want to share more of myself—my history, my soul, my heart. And I believe that sharing my full humanity honors you, in your full humanity. After a lifetime of listening and thirty years working as a literary agent, professionally midwifing thousands of people’s stories, I’ve learned firsthand that bravely sharing our truth and encouraging others to share theirs creates a type of magic that has the power to heal and connect us more deeply to one another.
Sharing our authentic stories can be transformational. Someone may look very different from us on the outside, but what our true stories reveal is that, on the inside, we have all experienced similar feelings of heartbreak, failure, betrayal, longing, triumph, and joy. We all want the same things—to be loved, to be seen, and to belong. We all have dreams that our lives will make a difference. Our stories illustrate that.
It’s all too easy to compare our insides to other people’s outsides, imagining some version of a perfect life others are living, while we are left with our imperfect ones. In that disconnect between our perception and reality is a void where loneliness, anxiety, and depression often grow. But there is an antidote—one we all have access to. Sharing the real stories of our hearts, our vulnerable and hungry hearts, allows us to connect to others—insides to insides. When someone hears our story, we feel seen, we know we matter, and we instantly realize we’re not alone. That’s why I call it magic. Because it is.
My purpose has always been to amplify people’s voices, to build a giant megaphone for people to be heard far and wide. “This book will change everything” is something I have said and meant too many times to count. Great books are like that—totally transformational. I cannot imagine where I would be had I not been found—like a search and rescue team locating me on a snowy mountain—by books. Growing up, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Maxine Hong Kingston were my most impactful teachers. Finding me in my lonely teenage bedroom, they shined a light, gave me words for my own experience, and made me feel I belonged. It made perfect sense that I would want to spend my adult life as close to books and their authors as possible.
After two decades as the leader of the literary division of a major global talent agency, representing and advocating for the most amazing, courageous, trailblazing, and luminous authors on the planet, selling their books to publishers and filmmakers and bringing their words into the world, living my dream come true every day, something unexpected happened: my dream evolved.
Authors write in solitude and we read in solitude. I’ve always loved that—but I found myself starting to long for community in a more intimate and immediate way. I wanted to bring people together as stories were shared, craving the magnified power of a collective experience. The universe provided the most perfect opportunity, and I was beyond blessed to collaborate on Oprah Winfrey’s The Life You Want tour. I spent twelve weeks on the road with hundreds of thousands of people, forming a collective heartbeat of hope and change. I joked it should have been called “the life I want” tour because I never wanted it to end. But when it did, I knew there was no going back for me. Something too big had shifted inside me.
I yearned to turn up the volume on the voices our mainstream media culture wasn’t often giving the microphone to: people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, disabled people, and people of all religious faiths. Out of that yearning, Together Live was born.
A speaking tour featuring the storytelling of writers, poets, musicians, and performers of all sorts, Together Live aimed to share stories from a stage that featured a diverse group of people, mostly womxn and the occasional man, who shared a desire for a more compassionate, equal, and just world. We made sure that ticket prices were affordable so that everyone with a hungry heart would be welcome. We set sail in the fall of 2016, and for four years our traveling love rally, including the contributors in this anthology, communed with fifty thousand kindred spirits. The word most often used to describe our event was “life-changing.” Life-changing. Yet all we did was sit on a couch onstage, share our wholehearted truths, and ask the audience to do the same. We entered every night as strangers in a new city and ended every night as a family—dancing, laughing, and crying together.
When it became clear that we would not be able to gather in theaters around the country in 2020, many of the outrageously talented and generous souls who had participated in Together Live decided to share their stories in book form. This anthology is the result of this effort. The title, Hungry Hearts, came from Sue Monk Kidd’s essay “Women on the Loose,” in which she describes a “big hungry thing in [her] heart” that was pushing her to write, when she “knew nothing about being a writer.” Reading Sue’s brilliant words, I wondered: What do our deepest hearts’ desires say about who we are? What does the hunger in our hearts motivate us to do? When we listen to what our hearts have to say, what do we hear? The incredible essays in this collection offer a range of answers to these questions. This anthology features the work of an intersectional group of storytellers writing with their own unique perspectives, yet all sharing a desire to find purpose, community, and resilience in the face of heartbreak, discomfort, and fear. As a group, these contributors are wildly diverse, yet they all have a brave and compassionate open heart. And on our Together Live tour, despite our many differences and varied lived experiences, we became a “road family.” Turns out that Disney World ride was right, it is a small world after all.
As a culture, we’ve learned a lot about division, loss, and change. Yet when all else falls away, we have our stories and we have one another. Full stop. My hope is that as you read each person’s vulnerable truth, you’ll be given courage to share your own. As you remember the confusion, shame, and fear of a moment when, unsuspectingly, your world turned upside down, like it did for me with my yellow legal pad pressed to my chest, you will take a chance and share it, perhaps with someone who looks nothing like you. You’ll see first-hand what I mean by magic. I believe in my bones that authentic storytelling is a radical act of love that can connect and heal our fractured world. For it to work, we need your story too. Together, we rise.